November 2019

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Is Smart as Smart Could Be?

After many discussions concerning functionality with peers from across the globe, it seems that there are no real guidelines on how to achieve an environment that can be termed smart or intelligent.
Dave Lapsley
Dave Lapsley,

Managing Director
Econowise Group of Companies

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What really constitutes a Smart Building? The term is seeing a lot of exposure and yet there seems to be no real bench mark as to exactly what a Smart Building either looks like or how it should perform.

We do know that efficiency in terms on energy use and occupants overall experience and comfort are key factors; with respect to a minimum requirement to enable a badge to be proudly worn seems yet to be clarified.

After many discussions concerning functionality with peers from across the globe it seems that there are no real guidelines on how to achieve an environment that can be termed smart or intelligent.

The energy piece is relatively straight forward and it should already be of the upmost importance to all building automation professionals already, to gauge this properly it is not a simple matter of looking at overall energy use either, we need to consider building size, occupant levels, performance expectations and location, only then can this be considered against overall energy usage.

Just a point of clarity on the above, I mention location and performance expectations as major contributing factors, in my opinion they both have to be a factor; we cannot simply take a one glove fits all approach here, our benchmarking has to account for extremes in ambient environments and expectation of performance related to ambient conditions.

There will also be an argument here that as designers we also need to look at maximum demands and at least concede that the way the world is going we need to give some focus on avoiding high energy consumption during specific time periods; as a regular LinkedIn browser I regularly see posts from Phillip Kopp or Conectric and it is quite clear that if we can avoid high usage during specific times then it is something that we must consider as well, I do think that this is more a function of the actual business, in some cases there requirements may allow system shedding but it is certainly never going to be a given. 

Now we move onto the occupant experience, what do users really need? This is where we start to lose focus as things are much harder to define; we can’t currently agree on what open is going to look like, why would we agree on something that is going consist of some very complex systems all integrated together to form something that we can then call a Smart Energy Efficient Building?

Smart Energy Efficient Building; why the use of capital letters, agreed this is not grammatically correct but in our world it is highly appropriate so I am going to claim poetic licence on this one as for building to be considered intelligent it must be both Smart in terms of functionality and as energy efficient as possible and be assured, achieving one by no means guarantees the other.

Occupant experience and comfort is where we really put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons, after speaking to some very frustrated individuals employed in the Building Automation Industry it seems that there is a very common thread and a contributing factor that is continually being exploited?

More often than not decisions are being made based upon relationships rather than industry knowledge, this is never going to end well if we are looking to explore the boundaries of what can be achieved with the use of cutting edge technology.

Although we cannot argue that many of the individuals concerned at the top of the chain in the decision making process have earned their proverbial wings; they are in a lot of cases not well placed to offer the best advice on such matters.

If the decision makers now rely on that long standing relationship with an automation specialist that has not kept a very close eye on evolving tech, then it is very likely that this is where the problems are going to start and finish and the end result will not be as Smart as Smart should be!

Just recently one such experience I have personally seen is a state of the art facility that has had an analogue networked door entry system installed simply because of a relationship, was it the right choice? No it wasn’t but it was advised by a company that knew no better because they are not working with current technology.

It seems that it is often the case, specialist automation companies are approached to assist M&E Consultants in preparing a controls specification, in many cases what comes out in the wash is going to be biased toward the specialist preparing the information and if they either lack understanding or do not for whatever reason have the capability then the latest technology will not be the default position and it will not be considered.

This is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for our industry to overcome; although not all the same there seems to be many established Master System Houses that to be blunt have not kept up to speed and do not have the expertise in house to deliver state of the art systems and functionality.

To use the above title the fact that they can install a BEMS as well as a Fire Alarm and Security System should not entitle the use of the term Master Systems Integrator, it simply makes them multi-discipline and the two completely different titles should not be confused.
I think that it is fair to say that IP networked system are starting to attract a lot of attention in the US market and lots of specialist are making noises about the need for employing IT specialists.

IP Systems have been the predominant network in the UK for a good number of years and we do not have IT Engineers, we have automation Engineers that have in-depth knowledge, these Engineers can hold a meaningful conversation with the IT department and gain their confidence and trust as and when required, many of our young Engineers in fact have grown up with this and their understanding of IP is far superior to that of conventional serial communications.

It is not simply my humble opinion but a cast iron fact that Building Owners/Operators are almost never advised of the very latest tech in an unbiased manner during the design phase of the works, lets be honest why would they even questions this when they are of the belief that by going to world renowned names that they are going to be advised by the best minds available with complete understanding of all the latest tech available to the market?

Well put bluntly it is time to think again, Building owners and operators need to make sure that they do their homework as there are many factors that will ultimately lead to failure in achieving a smart and efficient environment by utilising cutting edge technology; contrary to popular belief it no longer needs to break the bank either.

I have said it before and at the risk of seeming like I am on a witch hunt, if I see one more article about how a so called innovator has built a platform utilising Niagara 4 then I am in danger of spontaneous combustion, this is not innovation it using a platform how it was intended.

Show us something new and we will all applaud loudly, make our lives easier and we will all revere you forever, but claiming innovation whilst simply using smoke and mirror tactics to fool end users and operators is not going to win any prizes or impact our industry in any way.
What it does mean though is that the guys with the largest marketing budgets will create the best illusions and whether their systems are cutting edge or otherwise they will ultimately enjoy success due to market perception and understanding.

System Integrator’s often won’t even mention the very latest innovations as they are in many cases the platforms or systems that they fear, they are the fastest to deploy along with being the most cost effective to own, this will often result in low margins for someone in the supply chain.

I heard the term recently whereby a very forward thinking maintenance delivery specialist called Smart Managed Solutions Ltd were actually likened to a Turkey voting to have Christmas or Thanksgiving twice a year. The reason for this was that they put forward a system that has now been extensively trialled across some very large sites, it has been proven to dramatically reduce man hours whilst ensuring that building systems are kept in prime operational condition, on initial observation is utter madness for any sane business in their position to promote this technology.

What this FM specialist have committed to is offering a service that provides real enhanced levels of services enabling them to deliver these services in 50% the time at 55% of the cost, they can now deliver this service to 2 separate buildings in the same time frames and will enjoy a 10% increase in margin whilst offering significant savings to the client; who is the Turkey now?

Control Solutions, Inc There is no crystal ball involved here but hard facts, enhanced levels of maintenance are being delivered, this in short this means that cutting edge smart technology can be both deployed during the design phase of the works or in many cases retrofitted in a completely cost neutral manner.

Other factors that will also sadly prevent success is that there are all too many of the big players in the facilities sector that have decided to start working on their own tech, they have employed an individual that sits is a darkened room creating a very basic system, this system will not do much at all really other than represent their brand; Is it the best thing out there for the client; no but they believe it is because their trusted advisors have told them so and it is branded with a name that everyone knows and trusts.

This is becoming the case at pretty much every tier in the property market; from the Property Management Companies and M&E Consultants right down to the Cleaners, they are all fighting for brand awareness and will do everything required to achieve this even if the end result is not what it could and should be. 

Put simply until such times as the right team are involved in a timely manner, be it new build or retrofit then the results are always going to be pedestrian at best and at worst a complete failure to be meet even basic requirements.

Of course systems will offer the end user certain benefits but there is still a major focus on promoting brand awareness of the decision makers’ organisations which should really be a by-product of delivering a network of truly smart spaces.

End users need to take time to look at what is available from the market rather than simply allowing a reputation or a relationship to dictate what will be used on their sites ultimately effecting how smart their buildings are going to be.

Failure to plug this gap is only going to serve in preventing buildings and FM communities from ever becoming truly smart, efficient and engaging.

Once the correct decisions are made by the right people the result is going to be a level of functionality and environmental conditions that will become a benchmark. Occupants wellbeing and comfort levels will be at the forefront and end users will settle for nothing less.

Rental and lease incomes will be maximised through being able to offer optimised engaging environments, cost of ownership and utilities will be driven down whilst enhanced levels of employee engagement and productivity will be achieved.

Let’s not forget that although Energy conservation is our duty in order to protect our dwindling natural resources the actual cost of energy to most businesses represents around 5% of their overall costs whilst the cost of employees to a typical business is in the region of 70% of its outgoing revenue streams.

True Innovation is the only thing that is going to provide answers and at this moment in time it is in danger of being ignored simply because of a lack of awareness, very rarely have any of the major names in automation been responsible for producing something ground breaking.

In nearly all cases there deep pockets have allowed them to look at the market and purchase the latest innovation and adopt it as their own, surely this is all of the encouragement that we need to look a little harder at what is either available or on the horizon from the real innovators.
We need to see what is coming up on the rails, it is these solutions that may well be the winners in the long term and provide facilities that are as smart as we all believe they can be.   


About the Author

Dave Lapsley currently holds the position of Managing Director for the Econowise Group of Companies; leading a team of dedicated Building Automation and Software professionals in both the day to day activities of a System Integrator and developing and implementing cutting edge solutions for improving efficiency and reducing carbon footprint within the built environment.

Prior to founding the Econowise Group of Companies around 12 years ago Dave spent upwards of 25 years serving in the Process & Automation Industry working on system from manufacturing equipment through to Commercial and Residential environmental controls, more latterly holding senior management roles.  


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